Monday, November 26, 2012

On Happily Ever Afters (Or, The Self-Rescuing Princess)

I try not to argue with people. It's not fun for me. This is not to say that I'm incapable of holding my own, but in my experience, even the friendliest and most well-intended of arguments ends up escalating until everyone's mad and has to settle into at least half an hour of wildly uncomfortable silence. Party on.

No, I prefer to engage in what is called a, "spirited discussion." These are scenarios in which everyone can come to the table with an open mind and throw out their thoughts on a particular subject with the understanding that they can express their opinions and listen to others without the aim of proving themselves right and/or maintaining that others are wrong.

Every once in awhile, I end up getting into a, "spirited discussion," about the message of Disney princesses - not regularly, mind, but often enough that I wanted to take a minute to put my point of view down in writing.

Now, I understand the negative opinions. I really do. Disney princesses are a very specific animated representation of a potentially damaging physical ideal. There are none who look like me, who have my body type or glasses or shorter hair. This didn't bother me when I was little, but that may have been because I was too busy pretending to be each iteration of prince. They got the swords and the horses and, most important of all, the pants. For the record, that was not a euphemism - I truly was drawn to the fact that they literally got to wear pants. 

And that sucks. It sucks that the girls never got the swords, that the curvy characters were always relegated to comic relief, that stepparents were automatically evil and prone to turning into crazy witches and big ass dragons. Plus, apples already had to bear the brunt of biblical slander before the poison thing got thrown on them as well. I mean, come on.

But it's not all bad. Now that I'm older, I have a much better relationship with the princesses that I spent most of my childhood ignoring. At this point, having given (probably too much) thought to the matter, I'd even go so far as to say that a lot of the labels Disney princesses and their tales get slapped with are kind of unfair.  Let's take a look at a few.

1) The Dress - Argument: The girl isn't valued until she undergoes a total physical transformation.
Now, yes, after Cinderella, the, "makeover," became kind of a staple of the princess movie. However, it's just one moment out of an entire movie, and - if you really think about it - often has very little to do with how anybody (particularly the prince) feels about the girl in question. Snow White wears the same outfit the whole time. Cinderella technically needs to transform in order to gain entry into the ball where she first meets her prince. For him, it's just how she looks the first time he sees her, and while he loves her then, one must assume that he also loves her in rags later, as that's how she appears when they find her. Aurora, Belle, Rapunzel - they all meet their eventual princes when they're wearing, "street clothes." Ariel and Eric actually have kind of a lengthy courtship that involves a lot of looks. So sure, the makeovers are cool, but ultimately not all that important.

2) The Prince - Argument: Girls are taught that life blows unless you can find a rich hot dude to save you and marry you. On the surface, yes. Girl has tough life, girl meets boy, boy tends to swoop in during a perilous moment, boom - wedding bells. But there's so much that happens in between. Note that pretty much all of the princess movies are named after the girl. Hell, two of the princes weren't even granted proper names. Yes, it's usually the dude who gets to ride in and slay the dragon, and that looks really cool, but again, it's a single moment in a bigger story. Not only that, it's a moment that usually follows a series of difficult and sometimes painful decisions on the part of the princess. Which brings me to...

3) The Attitude - Argument: Princesses are helpless waifs whose only job is to look pretty and wait to be rescued. Now, I know I said I don't do the arguing thing because I don't see the value in everyone getting mad for no reason, but this particular point is the one that actually kind of ticks me off, because it takes a complex story and unfairly oversimplifies it. Yeah, you can take the one-sided approach to things. Snow White and Cinderella do a lot of housekeeping, Aurora was a dumbass for shoving her hand onto a needle, Ariel looked super cray brushing her hair with a fork, Jasmine was angry at life for like half the movie. But give credit where credit is due.

Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora lived parentless lives full of crazy bitches who were trying to murder them and/or abuse them into submission, and in spite of this chose to turn away from fear and anger and be positive, kindhearted people who still dared to dream and to believe in the power of love. Granted, Aurora was raised by three awesome fairies and was largely unaware of the plot to kill her in her teens (which seems like an error in judgment, but whatever), so this was probably less difficult for her, but still.

Ariel abandoned everything and everyone she knew, not just for a boy, but to try and find her place in the world. It's a fiercely independent move.

Belle repeatedly rebuffed the affections of the town hottie, not just because he also happened to be the town douchebag, but because she didn't love him, and marriage without love was not an option. She also willingly sacrificed her freedom to save her father, agreeing to what she thought was a lifetime of solitude in a tower cell. That she got to stay in a fancy room and would eventually end up falling in love with the warden doesn't negate the power of that sacrifice. And while her prince makes a noble gesture in an effort to save her, it's Belle's ability to see past the surface and into the heart that ends up saving him. Plus, to top it all off, she reads. A lot.

The list goes on, and it's full of things like that. So yes, the swords and horses and dragons are all very fancy, but it's the acts that precede the big finale that are often the most courageous. As people, all these princesses embrace the opportunity to rescue themselves long before true love's kiss comes into play. That's what I tell the kids in my life, and should I ever have children of my own, I'll say it to them too.

Look, here's the thing. I believe, unshakably and wholeheartedly, in magic. I see it at work everyday, and have been fortunate enough to help make it on occasion. I believe in love, in all its forms, as the ultimate strength and the furthest thing from a weakness. I believe that finding a partner who is kind and noble and respectful is a reasonable requirement, not an unrealistic expectation. And I believe that there is no naivete involved in striving for a happy ending.

No spirited discussion will ever convince me otherwise.